The Federal Aviation Administration has put the kibosh on the Missouri School of Journalism's groundbreaking drone program.
"Based on your university website, you are currently operating a UAS (unmanned aircraft system) without proper authorization," reads the letter sent to Scott Pham, founder and director of the Missouri Drone Journalism Program. "Operations of this kind may be in violation of Federal Aviation Regulations and result in legal enforcement action."
That's bad news for incoming students who'd hoped to take Pham's drone journalism class this fall. As of now, it's been scrapped. And even once he's properly certified, Pham says the restrictions he's being told to abide by will fundamentally change the usefulness of the technology.
"It's a serious problem for drone journalism, for sure," he says.
According to the letter, Pham needs certification from the FAA in order to operate the drones -- or "j-bots" as his students affectionately dubbed them. He says he was surprised and that a colleague running a drone program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln got a similar letter at the same time he did.
"I hadn't heard of the FAA really involving themselves in noncommercial use ever," he says. "I had just figured that noncommercial use was something that they're not concerned with."
Oh, but they're plenty concerned. Pham says he's learned that he cannot fly in "regulated airspace" -- also known as anywhere outside -- until he obtains a "certificate of authorization" from the FAA. Once he submits an application it will take 60 days for officials to decide if he's clear for takeoff. Even after that, Pham says he will only be allowed to fly within a designated area which he's estimating will be about a square mile or two. That means any news he's hoping to cover with his students will just have to happen to be breaking within those confines.
"I don't want to say that journalism is impossible under these restrictions but it simply can't be practiced in the way most people think about it," he says.
Pham says he's also puzzled because he has been operating the drone for eight months and despite plenty of media attention, never heard a complaint from anyone until now. Check out some of the pieces his class created last year that showcase the technology's potential:
"This is something the FAA has been working very hard on," says spokeswoman Elizabeth Cory of the rules surrounding unmanned aircraft systems. "When we find that there could be a violation of agency regulation and policies, we're going to contact them and tell them to apply."
Pham says he understands that everyone is adapting to the new technology. He says in his application to the FAA he'll likely select a piece of land in a state park or on a "friendly farm" that will allow his students to test-fly the j-bots. Another solution may be to pick a property where "there is one story that might be worthy of significant investigation" and fly the drones there.
"I realize I'm very, very early in what may become a sub-genre of media creation," says Pham. "This is not the end, this is just the very beginning of something."
Check out the letter Pham got on the Missouri Drone Journalism Program's blog here.